Sunday, April 09, 2006

Movie Review: "Good Night, and Good Luck"

Starring David Strathairn, Patricia Clarkson, George Clooney, Jeff Daniels, Robert Downey Jr. and Frank Langella
Directed by George Clooney

When it comes to the field of broadcast journalism, few, if any, are held in as high regard as Edward R. Murrow. With a broadcasting career that spanned over 25 years, all with CBS, Murrow was known for his hard-hitting style and integrity. Nowhere was that better demonstrated with his CBS show, "See It Now," which tackled numerous controversial topics, including the activities of Sen. Joseph McCartney and his relentless, highly controversial crusade against Communism.

Primarily focusing on Murrow and producer Fred Friendly's decision in the mid-1950s to challenge the junior senator's intimidating tactics, director George Clooney's "Good Night, and Good Luck" is a smart, earnestly acted drama. Without resorting to melodrama or grandstanding theatrics, the movie clearly demonstrates the dedication of a small group of reporters and producers, and their desire to show people that McCarthy's mission to expose Communists is an errant one.

Anchored by a straightforward and focused performance by David Straithairn as Murrow, the film essentially covers three episodes of "See It Now," and their subsequent aftermath. In one of the episodes, the show, predictably unable to get the participation of McCarthy, decides to use past footage of him, highlighting some of the inflammatory and contradictory statements he had made over the years. McCarthy would eventually appear on an episode to present a speech, in which he would criticize Murrow, even making untrue statements about the newsman's supposed "un-American" activities. But by then, the damage against Sen. McCarthy was already done, and the public made it clear in overwhelming numbers that they supported Murrow, thus signaling the beginning of the end for McCarthy's political career.

Clooney, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Grant Heslov, certainly knows his way around a newsroom, as his father was a longtime newsman himself. The almost claustrophobic and smoke-filled CBS studios are captured flawlessly, aided in large part to the smart decision to use wonderful-looking black and white cinematography by Robert Elswitt.

There was obviously a clear decision to keep the focus of the movie squarely inside CBS, as only a handful of scenes are even set outside of the network's building. And while Murrow is the central character in the film, this is by no means a biopic. Next to nothing is revealed about Murrow's personal life, and the same can be said for practically all the supporting cast, save for a brief and rather underdeveloped subplot involving the secretive marriage of Joe and Shirley Wershba (played by Robert Downey Jr. and Patricia Clarkson). Back then, CBS corporate policy forbid the employment of married couples.

While the cast, which also includes Clooney, Jeff Daniels and Frank Langella, can certainly not be faulted for any shortcomings in their performances, several of them aren't really utilized much. That decision undermines some of the narrative thrust of the film. The running time is a sleek 93 minutes, but it leaves a feeling of wanting a bit more. In fact, the movie is bookended with a 1958 appearance at a banquet honoring Murrow that ultimately adds little to the movie, except the chance for Murrow to chide the television industry on its leanings towards insignificance. There's certainly truth to his statements today, but they seem tacked on as more of a commentary on the television industry in general – a medium that Clooney has certainly had some conflicts with in recent years.

What the film does get exactly right is the power that the medium and journalism in general can have. The fearful and distrustful atmosphere that McCarthy helped create in 1950s America was challenged and eventually overcome by people like Murrow. But the movie also makes it clear that we as a society must be ever vigilant, as it can easily happen again.

Grade: B
(Rated PG for mild thematic elements and brief language.)

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